Wireless robot could rescue people trapped underground

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A new robot that can communicate wirelessly from underground could be used to rescue people trapped in inaccessible places.

The project, dubbed Wireless Underground Robots for First Responders (WURFR), is a collaborative effort between WFS Defense and Allen-Vanguard and marks the first attempt to fully integrate WFS’s wireless technology into a commercial robotic platform.

‘The WURFR system integrates the latest developments in resilient communications from WFS with Allen-Vanguard’s highly mobile Digital Vanguard remotely operated vehicle,’ said Martin Lawrance, Allen-Vanguard’s technical director.

WFS Defense’s newly improved Terratooth wireless communication system will enable the development of a remote-control robot that can communicate more effectively in tunnels, collapsed buildings and sewerage networks — a capability that would make it particularly useful to the emergency services and rescue teams.

‘Current generations of unmanned vehicle “robots” available to first responders for search and investigation tasks in post-disaster and other high-threat situations rely on conventional radio communications for control and situational awareness,’ said Lawrance.

In circumstances when conventional radio communication systems are ineffective because the operating frequency is too high, a cable tether (made from copper or optical fibre) is used to achieve the required operating range. ‘This imposes a significant additional burden on the operator, who must avoid damaging the tether when manoeuvring,’ added Lawrance.

WFS chairman Brendan Hyland said: ‘Our two-way communications system is based on a low-frequency radio technology that WFS has developed. Very low-frequency radio is capable of transmitting through solid materials, such as ground, and conductive materials, such as seawater.’

Data will be transferred over the network at bandwidths between 10 kilobytes per second and 200 kilobytes per second and the communication system will have a range of 30–100m, depending on its environment.

‘If you’re operating in a tunnel in a very quiet location, let’s say the proverbial Mexican border where there is practically nothing around, we can anticipate being able to operate over substantial ranges because it is relatively quiet,’ said Hyland. ‘At the opposite end of the scale is London Underground, which is a very tough environment for any radio system to operate in because of the high-voltage trains and old Victorian circuitry, as they cause interference.’

The system will enable the robot to stream video, collect sensor data and act as a repeater for underground voice communications. Hyland explained that the communication system’s bandwidth will enable colour video to be transferred at between five and seven frames per second. ‘It’s not HD [high definition] but it provides more than adequate resolution for most circumstances,’ he said.